How An Amateur Pilot Got Drunk And Landed A Plane In The Middle Of New York – Twice!

by Rick Roberts
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Planes aren’t allowed within city limits for a reason. They’re large, loud, and dangerous; and usually, there’s nowhere for them to land.

But that didn’t stop Thomas Fitzgerald from making an ill-advised bet at the bar. This WWII veteran did the impossible not just once, but twice. Today, he’s a legend in New York City.

Thomas Fitzgerald, Veteran and Airplane Mechanic

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Thomas Fitzgerald was born in New York City in the year 1930. In WWII, he served as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. After the war was concluded, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War.

One purple heart and many stories later, Fitzgerald returned to civilian life. He’d already had adventures on land and sea, so he decided to take to the air instead.

Thomas enrolled in the Teterboro School of Aeronautics in New Jersey. He gained his pilot’s license and began working at an airplane mechanic.

One Drunken Night at the Bar

At the age of 26, Thomas Fitzgerald was a veteran of two wars and a licensed pilot. He also liked to spend time at the bar with his friends.

On a September evening in Washington Heights, Fitzpatrick made a drunken bet with another patron at a local tavern. He claimed that he could drive to New Jersey from the Heights and be back in 15 minutes. Of course, no one believed him.

An Impossible Landing

Fitzpatrick went out to his car and drove to his old flying school. There, he commandeered a single-engine plane and flew it back to Washington Heights.

His plan was to land the plane on the football field of a local high school. Unfortunately, it was 3:00 am, and the field was too dark to see.

Not wanting to risk the safety of the aircraft, and with time running out on his bet, Fitzgerald made what seemed like a logical decision. He flew to the bar and landed his plane on the street.

Local Uproar

In the morning, Washington Heights woke to find a plane parked neatly on St. Nicholas Avenue. Most people who saw the plane thought it had to be a joke; no one could thread an aircraft of that size between the narrow buildings of Manhattan.

But it wasn’t a joke, and Fitzgerald had actually managed to land that plane. The owner of the aircraft didn’t press charges, to Fitzgerald walked away with nothing more than $100 fine and a suspension of his pilot’s license. There’s no word on whether the other guy at the bar paid up.

Doing It All Again

As a judge later noted, if Fitzgerald had been properly charged for his antics, he might not have tried to do it again. But two years later, he decided to recreate his feat.

This time, the bet was with a man from Connecticut. Thomas had been drinking again, and this fellow didn’t believe that he had actually landed the plane. Rather than pull out a newspaper clipping, Thomas decided to prove his piloting skills in person.

The two drove back to New Jersey, and Fitzgerald selected a fresh single-engine plane for his new exploit. Once again, he flew between Manhattan’s buildings and landed smoothly in the street.

This latest stunt had witnessed. Several New Yorkers were startled as a plane came swooping over their heads. One bus driver dove to the floor of his vehicle.

Fitzgerald fled the scene, leaving an aircraft in the middle of the road.

Legal Consequences

This time, local authorities were not nearly so lenient with Fitzgerald. In addition to pulling an aerial stunt, he’d also fled the scene and lied to authorities about his involvement. It was only when he was identified by witnesses that he admitted to piloting the craft.

Thomas Fitzgerald’s charges included grand larceny, reckless piloting, flying within city limits, and flying without a license. His reward was six months in jail and story in every major news publication.

Although he was obviously a talented pilot, Fitzgerald never got his license back. He got married, settled down, and had three children. Fitzgerald finally died in 2009, going down in history as the first and only man to successfully land a plane in New York City.

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